SACRAMENTO — Amid California’s most crippling drought of modern times, state officials on Friday announced they will not allocate water to agencies that serve 25 million people and nearly 1 million acres of farmland.
The announcement marks the first time in the 54-year history of the State Water Project that such an action has been taken. State Department of Water Resources Director Mark Cowin said the action was taken to conserve the little water that remains behind the dams in the state’s vast system of reservoirs.
"Simply put, there’s not enough water in the system right now for customers to expect any water this season from the project," Cowin said in a statement.
Most of the 29 agencies serving the towns and farms that draw from the State Water Project have other, local sources of water, but those also have been hard-hit by the drought.
The total cut-off of state water deliveries this spring and summer could have a national impact because it will affect farms in one of the nation’s richest agricultural belts.
"These actions will protect us all in the long run," Cowin said during a news conference that included numerous state and federal officials, including those from wildlife and agricultural agencies.
Friday’s action came after Gov. Jerry Brown made an official drought declaration, clearing the way for state and federal agencies to coordinate efforts to preserve water and send it where it is needed most. The governor urged Californians to reduce their water use by 20 percent.
It also reflects the severity of the dry conditions in the nation’s most populous state. Officials say 2013 was the state’s driest calendar year since records started being kept, and this year is heading in the same direction.
A snow survey on Thursday in the Sierra Nevada, one of the state’s key water sources, found the water content in the meager snowpack is just 12 percent of normal. Reservoirs are lower than they were at the same time in 1977, which is one of the two previous driest water years on record.
State officials say 17 rural communities are in danger of a severe water shortage within four months. Wells are running dry or reservoirs are nearly empty in some communities. Others have long-running problems that predate the drought.
The timing for of Friday’s historic announcement was important: State water officials typically announce they are raising the water allotment on Feb. 1, but this year’s winter has been so dry they wanted to ensure they could keep the remaining water behind the dams.
The announcement also will give farmers more time to determine what crops they will plant this year and in what quantities.
Farmers and ranchers throughout the state already have felt the drought’s impact, tearing out orchards, fallowing fields and trucking in alfalfa to feed cattle on withered range land.
At the same time, many cities have ordered severe cutbacks in water use.
With many of the state’s rivers reduced to a trickle, fish populations also are being affected. Eggs in salmon-spawning beds of the American River near Sacramento were sacrificed after upstream releases from Folsom Dam were severely cut back.
The drought is highlighting the traditional tensions between the groups that claim the state’s limited water for their own priorities — farmers, city residents and conservationists.
Chuck Bonham, director of the California Department of Fish and Wildlife, urged everyone to come together during the water crisis.
"This is not about picking between delta smelt and long-fin smelt and chinook salmon, and it’s not about picking between fish and farms or people and the environment," he said. "It is about really hard decisions on a real-time basis where we may have to accept some impact now to avoid much greater impact later."